The following essay contains
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Admittedly there are moments in Lamb that, to me, are unintentionally hilarious just because of the sight gag that is the lamb child, Ada. That being said, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb—co-written with author Sjón, who also co-wrote the upcoming Robert Eggers film The Northman—is likewise full of striking imagery and symbolism that make it far more than a surreal piece of folk horror. This film could be, in different hands, a somewhat silly concept. Jóhannsson crafts Lamb into a powerful allegory about the way human beings treat the natural world around them. The story of Jesus Christ’s birth here becomes a surreal horror story, combined with a subversion of religious artwork and imagery, all of which acts as a confrontation with our own hubris and the misguided belief that we, as humans, are the centre of life, love, and happiness in the universe.There’s an obvious reference at the very beginning of the film where we hear “Merry Christmas,” leading to the birth of a new calf; all a more than clear reference to the birth of Christ, the nativity story at the centre of Christianity (though, to be fair, Jesus wasn’t the only spiritual figure born on December 25, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Although María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) have their own home and aren’t spending a night in labour with only the hospitality of a barn, they’re still presented with a miracle, echoing the birth of Jesus Christ, with the arrival of a human-lamb hybrid, Ada (from the Germanic ‘adel’ which means ‘nobility’). Not only does Lamb evoke Christmas, it vividly evokes biblical imagery and stories, as well.
It’s easy to connect Lamb with the Christian conception of Christmas, and the biblical quote from John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Throughout the film we see how Ada, like Christ, is treated by some with love—by the Two Apostles, María and Ingvar—and others with hatred. Also, María is the Latin version of Mary, connecting María’s character in name to both the mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene, two major figures in Christianity. Further than that, Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) is, at least at first, a contentious figure in the midst of María and Ingvar’s new happiness, having special difficulty navigating his relationship to María. The trouble between Pétur and María is another echo of the Bible, in that the apostle Peter was jealous of Mary because of her relationship to Jesus; it doesn’t entirely fit perfectly, yet tough to deny the comparison.
Perhaps the biggest potential connection between Jóhannsson’s film and Christianity is the way Ada’s appearance parallels the Lamb of God’s appearance in the Ghent Altarpiece, dated in the mid-15th century, especially the panel titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In the artwork’s panel, the Lamb of God, until the recent restoration, looked a lot like Ada in that it had a very lamblike face. However, humanoid features were revealed in the restoration, and the lamblike features were a product of an earlier restoration, meaning that the original painters represented the Lamb of God as humanised. The original artwork of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was envisioned in the same vein as Lamb perceives Ada: while Ada’s face is lamblike she has a human’s body, a literal mix of two species’, only a slightly different interpretation of the same humanised lamb from the Ghent Altarpiece.
What Ada becomes in Lamb is an allegory about the human treatment of animals and the way we impose our will upon animals, not only by using them for food but by how we’ve transformed them into domesticated pets to keep us company. Even many vegans (and I’m not shitting on the vegan lifestyle here, whatsoever) refuse to recognise that though we give animals good lives as pets we’re still ripping animals away from their mothers and fathers and siblings, putting them in an environment that’s not natural to them (and has only become ‘natural’ because we’ve turned animals into house pets), feeding them foods they wouldn’t naturally eat, and convincing ourselves that they’re better off for all our human generosity. The way we treat pets is actually akin to attitudes driving colonialism: white people convince themselves that non-white people from less developed, poorer countries need white countries to save them from their circumstances.
In Lamb, María goes so far as to kill Ada’s mother and be rid of her, all in the name of holding power over the natural world. A particularly potent scene is when María dreams of the rams staring at her, their eyes glowing with distrust and anger. The dream positions her against nature; a human mother against Mother Nature. The dream also becomes a counterpoint to a picture we see hanging on María and Ingvar’s wall depicting a sheepherder driving a massive group of sheep through the countryside; the painting is one of violence, from the animals’ perspective as they’re marched like POWs by the sheepherder, and in María’s dream she is the human image of violence at which the rams balk.
What Ada really does in the film is make us confront tough truths about ourselves. The appearance of Ada’s father, a humanlike ram, is what subverts the Christian story of Jesus dying for our sins into something far more truthful. Ada—the Jesus figure, the Lamb of God—does not die for the sins of the world, rather she lays bare the sins of the modern world, those of human beings. Her ram father plays the part of God here, but does not sacrifice his little lamb, instead choosing to take revenge on the humans who pulled Ada away from her life amongst nature.
The crowning image of Christian symbolism comes at the end when María cradles her dying husband, reminiscent of the image from Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture, the Pietà, which depicts Mary holding the corpse of her son Jesus after he was crucified. Thought Ingvar isn’t meant as a Christlike figure in Lamb there’s still the continuation of an image of María as the mother of Christ. Here, the Pietà‘s subverted as this vision of Mary is left with the wreckage she caused by asserting her motherhood over the natural world, throwing off the delicate balance between humanity and nature. Lamb‘s Mary is left with nobody because of her human hubris, with no Jesus figure to soak up all her sins.
There are few experiences like Lamb, and not solely due to the tiny human-lamb hybrid. Jóhannsson’s film is a special one that takes its time burning a slow hole into the core of your being, and, for a time, the religious connections make it feel like there’s only one inevitable conclusion: poor Ada’s going to bear the brunt of humanity’s intolerance, just like ole Christ supposedly did up on the cross.
Lamb resists paralleling the story of Christ too closely, whether inadvertently or not, but does so for the better. The film’s last ten minutes or so are a tense descent into horrific acceptance through a recognition of all the harm we do to nature, from imposing our will on animals to denying the devastating effects of climate change. In the final shots, María whispers to a dying Ingvar “It will be okay,” though she knows it won’t as he bleeds out in her arms, similar to how we keep convincing ourselves and telling our loved ones, including children, that everything will be fine even as the world has literally started to burn down around us.